Funeral Potatoes Comfort, But At A Caloric Cost

What are funeral potatoes? People were asking this after an advertisement from Walmart for a packaged version of this dish appeared on their web site. Funeral potatoes are a well known dish in Mormon communities in Utah and Idaho, although it is popular as a cheesy potato casserole in many areas in the mid-west. Funeral potatoes is the name of a casserole traditionally brought to the home of the bereaved to be served at the after funeral lunch. The appearance of an instant version of this dish in Walmart may simply be evidence that in our busy lives, some do not have time to buy and assemble the ingredients. It is easier to find them all in a bag.

The ubiquity of this dish in homes of the newly bereaved, whether it comes from a package or is made from scratch, indicates that it may have an important function during the mourning process. The dish is considered the premier comfort food for after funeral repasts. One reason is that when made correctly, and probably not from a box, it tastes wonderful. Anyone who loves the combination of a creamy, cheesy, and crispy potato dish will have satisfied taste buds after eating funeral potatoes. (See below for generic recipe)  But long minutes after the food is consumed, the eater may experience a feeling of calmness, comfort, and decreased stress. The taste of the dish has disappeared from the mouth, but the effect on the emotions continues to grow.

Why?

The brain, not the gut, i.e., the intestinal tract, is involved in producing this emotional change. Twenty minutes or so after the last mouthful of the funeral potatoes are swallowed and digestion is in full swing, changes begin to occur leading to perceptible improvements in mood. Feelings of calm begin to take the edge off the sorrow and distress felt after the funeral. This occurs because of an increase in the synthesis and activity of the ‘feel-good‘ brain chemical, serotonin.

Funeral potatoes do not contain serotonin. (Indeed, even if one could eat something with serotonin in it, this very large molecule never, ever gets into the brain.) But potatoes are a starchy carbohydrate, and as happens when any starchy carbohydrate is digested, insulin is released. This sets in motion a process that allows an amino acid, tryptophan, to get into the brain . And as soon as tryptophan arrives, serotonin is made and one’s mood improves.

In the interests of good nutrition, or bringing food for a bereaved individual who may be on a Paleo or ketogenic diet, or any adherent to the, “Carbohydrates are Terrible Foods and Should be Avoided!’ diets, shouldn’t the traditional funeral potatoes be replaced by something else? Funeral potatoes may taste wonderful and make everyone feel better, but a dish of chopped egg whites is certainly a preferable dish for people avoiding carbohydrates. Or if not egg whites, perhaps roast chicken or baked fish or a smoked ham? These high protein foods certainly seem more nutritious than hash brown potatoes soaked in cream of chicken soup and covered with melted cheese, butter and crumbled cornflakes.

However, as important as eating protein is for our nutritional well-being, it has no effect on our emotional well-being. The carbohydrate, this funeral potato will nourish the mind, soothe the emotions. Potatoes are not an antidepressant, and of course cannot take away the pain and sorrow of a death of a family member or friend. But the synthesis of serotonin after eating carbohydrate is nature’s gift to us. It allows us to console and comfort ourselves simply by eating the right foods.

Eating protein prevents serotonin from being made. This is due to the absence of insulin secretion after protein foods are digested. The blood stream is flooded with amino acids that come from the digested protein, and although tryptophan is among the amino acids coming into the body, it is unable to get into the brain since the other amino acids crowd entry points to the brain. Eating protein does not truly comfort or console.

There is a problem, however. If going to an after-funeral lunch is something that is thankfully rare, eating funeral potatoes should have no lasting effects on weight and longevity. But if based on the traditions of your community or the ages of the people with whom you spend most of your time, and you are making frequent condolence calls? Eating funeral potatoes may deposit extra pounds you do not want. It is a very fattening dish mainly because of the number of high fat ingredients, e.g. sour cream, cheese, and butter.

Does this mean that you should eat egg whites instead, despite the lack of comfort bestowed by protein consumption?

Fortunately no.

Your brain does not care whether the carbohydrate that will ultimately lead to more serotonin is loaded with sour cream and shredded Cheddar cheese, or is a dry rice cake, bowl of bran flakes, or a boiled potato. Indeed the absence of fat as in a plain boiled potato will lead to a more rapid digestion, more rapid serotonin synthesis, and more rapid feeling of comfort.

Funeral potatoes are a great comfort. But for the sake of a healthy weight and avoidance of one’s own funeral, a plain baked potato (no butter or sourcream) should be eaten instead.

Generic recipe for Funeral Potatoes
Can Cream of Chicken soup
1 ½ – 2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese
2 cups sour cream
2 pounds package of frozen hash brown potatoes
1 stick butter
Chopped onions-1/2 cup
1-2 cups crushed corn flakes

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